Much of what you need to know about Michael A. Peroutka's run for president you can see in a glance around his living room.
Take the stack of things on his coffee table. It consists of campaign notes stuffed into a manila folder, a copy of former White House counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke's book Against All Enemies, and a Bible. On the bookcase, there's a bust of Patrick Henry, the revolutionary and anti-federalist Virginian who feared the government was too centralized. A painting of Robert E. Lee hangs above tiny Confederate flags on the mantle.
"Many people are disillusioned with [President] Bush for a number of reasons," Peroutka says after welcoming a visitor into his home. "People who don't know my name or know about the party are finding us and seeking us out -- they're looking for an alternative."
Just how many might choose that alternative -- the nationally active Constitution Party and its strict pro-life, anti-immigration, Constitution-driven platform -- is not clear. Political experts say the number, as in past elections, could be negligible, despite a party enrollment of some 340,000. But there are whispers, at least, that this election year, Peroutka's party just might be for Republicans what Ralph Nader and the Green Party were for the Democrats in 2000: a spoiler, drawing disillusioned conservatives away from President Bush.
And so Peroutka -- a Pasadena attorney who has never run for public office before and has been involved in politics for only a few years -- now finds himself engaged in an unlikely run for the White House, one that will be formally kicked off this week at the Constitution Party nominating convention in Valley Forge, Pa.
It's a big step for a man whose only previous public exposure has included a messy legal battle with his stepdaughters and their social worker, and complaints about his overly generous state campaign contributions.
While he's far from a household name, Peroutka has made appearances on Fox News and done speaking engagements from New Hampshire to Missouri to Las Vegas. And despite the odds against his success, Peroutka is pursuing the presidency with a mixture of confidence and aw-shucks humility that seems to border on naivete.
"It's in God's hands now," he says.
A warm and engaging man, Peroutka, 53, readily quotes John Quincy Adams, the Constitution and the Bible when he speaks. His home in the upscale Brittingham development has a beautiful backyard garden; in the street out front, his 13-year-old son whizzes around on in-line skates. His wife, Diane, provides refreshments to a guest, then sits by silently as her husband speaks.
"People need to understand what an American view of law and government is," he says. "We've gotten away from what an American view is -- that there is a creator God, that rights come from God, not the government. And the purpose of government, which is to protect, defend and secure those God-given rights."
Not their first choice
Peroutka wasn't the Pennsylvania-based Constitution Party's first choice as its candidate. That honor was meant for ousted Alabama judge Roy Moore, famous for his passionate defense of a Ten Commandments monument in his courthouse. But with Moore tied up in legal appeals, the party turned to Peroutka, one of its biggest fund-raisers.
"We believe that Mr. Peroutka is a qualified individual and represents the type of thing we believe in and want to see promoted through him," said national party chairman Jim Clymer.
Peroutka is expected to appear on the ballot in more than 40 states this fall, just as Constitution Party candidate Howard Phillips did in 2000. But to make any impact, he'll have to fare better than Phillips, who failed to garner even one-half of a percent of the popular vote nationally. Phillips received sparse support from Maryland voters in his three presidential bids: 22 in 1992, 3,402 in 1996, and 919 votes in 2000.
Peroutka has received the support of the new Alaskan Independence Party, which has 17,000 members; he also received 23,900 votes in this year's California Republican presidential primary -- more than one-time Democratic challenger Carol Mosley Braun (21,500) but less than Green Party candidate Peter Miguel Carmejo (29,900).
James Gimpel, a government and politics professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, expects the Constitution Party's impact on the 2004 election to be minimal.
"I don't think the level of dissatisfaction is strong enough with the Republican Party to garner much support," he said. "The American political system doesn't reward third parties."
Peroutka, though, is not daunted by history.